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Composing with Piano or in Head?

Dear all,

I would like to know the way Tchaikovsky was composing his works. I read that A. Rubinstein taught his students (in time Tchaikovsky attended his class) not to compose with piano. Is there any knowledge of how often Tchaikovsky used piano (as helping instrument) while composing? Are there any famous works he composed only in head?

Thank you for any remarks...

Marcel Takac

Dear Marcel,

Generally your questions cannot be answered uniformly. There are some comments from the eighteen seventies to the eighteen nineties, where Tchaikovsky told himself something about his methods of composition concerning the utilisation of piano or not.

1. letter to Leo V. Davydov, 05–19–1877 (composition of Evgenij Onegin)

“… The composition of an opera for me means, that I have to be sure nobody can see and hear me during certain hours, because my habit is to sing loudly during composition and the very thought of it, that anybody can hear me bugs me…. In my bedroom I have a piano, without that, I cannot compose, anyway not quick, calm and easefully.”

2. letter to Modest Thaikovsky, 06–09–1877 (composition of Evgenij Onegin)

“… Nobody – except of Alesa – appears, when I’ am busy. The main issue is, that I have a piano and when I am playing piano the sound will achieve nobody except of Alesa …” (Alesa was his servant)

3. letter to Jurgenson, 04–22–1879 (composition of The Maid of Orleans)

“I’ll not need an instrument, because the whole summer I’ll be busy with the instrumentation of the opera. And I’ll not have enough time to play much.”

4. from an interview (November 1892)

“How do musical ideas come into existence by yourself ?”

“… Musical ideas are coming, when I start to work and when I’ am free of any worries and thoughts, which can distract me from work. By the way – mostly the ideas come, when I go daily for a walk outside. Because of my worse talent to keep musical ideas in good memory I use a note-book.”

Tchaikovsky never made improvisations on piano as a preparation for composition. He immediately wrote down his ideas. These sketches were developed to make first drafts. Step by step he made further critical analysis up to the final score.

Tchaikovsky learned from Rubinstein the high professional niveau and the discipline during his work. So he was able to control and navigate the process of creation. This power was the basis to compose in just 29 years his huge oeuvre.

Rüdiger Herpich

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